Author Q&A: Jessica Morey-Collins

Jessica Morey-Collins is a poet and planner interested in hazard mitigation, organizational resilience, mental health, and sexuality. Her writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and Best of the Net.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Jessica Morey-Collins

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How did your writing career begin? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

I’ve always been hyper-verbal, but in the 4th grade I wrote a really over-the-top story about a bathtub full of blood, and my (generous) teacher praised my creativity and told me that I was a writer. I took that to heart, and have applied a lot of attention and emotional energy to improving my writing since.

I see you’ve published both poems and essays. Was there a difference between getting the two forms published? How would you evaluate your own experience with this process? How has that shifted over time?

For me, it’s a lot easier to find homes for poems than essays. In part this is because poetry is the medium I’m most comfortable with, and the literary scene I’m most familiar with. For non-fiction, I’m less familiar with the terrain. Publishing is an exercise in acquaintance and eventually intimacy—I try to get to know journals: their editors, who they publish, whether they lean narrative or lyric, tones, aesthetics, ethos, if they favor certain ranges of content, etc. If these qualities resonate with the work I’m trying to home, I send it.

Recently, I’ve gotten more methodical with submitting. My current masters program involves some data analysis, so I’ve started keeping stats on my submissions in Excel.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? I see you mention mental health and sexuality often in your works. In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

I have type-two bipolar disorder, and as an adolescent my big moods were overwhelming and hard to talk about. So I wrote about them. I still write—often—to parse my mental illness and how I’m trying to survive it. Hypersexuality is an occasional symptom, and so part of my fascination with sex stems from its gradations. What is considered normal? What is deviant? Who decides? Lately, these questions center on power—its role in consensual sex, its role in abuse. My current program of study focuses on natural hazard mitigation and community resilience—this has bent my poems toward considering the role of safety in all of this—how can we stay safe in a dangerous world? safe from ourselves, safe from each other? How can we stay safe without insulating ourselves from joy and connection?

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

Sylvia Plath was the first poet to capture my heart, no doubt because we share a diagnosis. She is so precise and bitter—learning a woman could wield bitter words beautifully urged me to keep trying to do so. Emily Dickinson is another who’s big abstractions permit me to be big and abstract. Alive-writers whose poems make my brain hum include Maggie Nelson, Rae Armantrout, Danez Smith, Emilia Phillips, Wren Hanks, Chen Chen, Jade Hurter Laura Kasischke… so many (sorry to list!! I love poets so much!). These incredible writers manage to balance being earnest and incisive, something I hope to learn in my art and in my character.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?

For me, curiosity.

In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different journals or platforms? For Thirst Trap, did you submit to various journals before it was published by Stirring Lit? How do you decide who you’d like to submit to? 

Ethos and aesthetic are my two initial criteria in finding places to send work. Does the journal have a mission I’m willing to stand with? Do I like the style of what they publish? After that, I look for the fit of the specific poems. I sent “Thirst Trap” to a handful of magazines that publish work that celebrates and complicates the relationship between humans and the environment.

What can you tell us about your experiences in teaching and being involved in university? 

It’s true that teaching is a great way to learn. People have such a staggering range of experiences with language, to the extent that their associations with particular words can inhibit mutual understanding. Yanny, Laurel, etc. Negotiating that range of interpretation and perception for a classroom full of people forces you to be deliberate and iterative with your speech. That is, I learned to explain a task a few ways, to give a few different examples. This has been invaluable in both my poetry and my work, now, as a planning professional.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

Working as an editor for Bayou Magazine absolutely transformed my understanding of publishing and the work involved in bringing a magazine to press. Reading through slush clarified the scope of poets writing in the world. There are so many of us! And so many people writing incredible, moving, weird, wild work. Reading slush and managing a team of readers made it evident that rejections aren’t personal—each editorial team is a distinct constellation of tastes. I can’t get mad if my work doesn’t ring everyone’s bell! Also—wow—serving the greater community of writers is absolutely the best feeling. I 10/10 recommend that any living writer seek out the opportunity to read for a publication.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists? And what may be one of your favorite pieces you’ve written? 

Read, teach, and serve! I spent so much of my early writing career feeling like success was zero-sum. It’s not. There’s a wealth of interest in poetry, a wealth of writers and readers and publications. The scene is always shifting, new readers and writers constantly coming into their excitement about literary art. The more you support other writers—with your enthusiasm, attention, knowledge-sharing, and (when possible!) your money—the more rewarding it is to write.

After having successfully published so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both poetry and prose/essays?

I’ve been working hard to find a home for my chapbook, Power Plays, and have gotten close with some absolute dream presses. I recently finished a full-length, and have been sending that around to presses and contests.

I’ve been in over my head learning the ropes of a new discipline, and figuring out my interests and skills as hazard mitigation planner. I’m looking forward to synthesizing some of this learning soon, and am hoping to give flash nonfiction a go!

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